A Fisherman’s Dream Trip
Tony Reyes Fishing Trip, Sea of Cortez, San Felipe, Mexico
Driving down a dark, desolate highway to Mexico, fishing poles and coolers crowd the back of the car, we pass the time exchanging stories. We are on our way to a week-long fishing trip in the Sea of Cortez, an inlet in between Baja California and mainland Mexico. After crossing the border into Mexico, with only a few miscommunications, we arrive in San Felipe by 8 am. At the end of a dilapidated dock sits the Tony Reyes, a yellow and white boat with 9 smaller boats (pangas) laying on its’ stern deck. Stark white fingers clench the steering wheel as you drive out on the dock, a concrete form pitted with human-sized potholes and rebar sticking out at odd angles, to the boat. Nevertheless, the trusty Toyota makes it to the end of the dock and we offload our gear, scrambling to find bunks that will be our home for the next 6 days.
From then on it is smooth sailing, each day waking before sunrise for the best shot at the biggest fish. Every day there is a morning and afternoon fishing session for about 4-5 hours. Your fishing guide takes you and two other anglers out on his 22’ panga with the hopes of catching “the big one.” As every fisherman knows, you never know what is going to be on the end of your line. Sometimes you fight like a dog for 9-pound yellowtail, and at other times you bring up a 15-pound cabrilla (a leopard grouper found in the Sea of Cortez) with relative ease.
After fishing for about 4-5 hours in the heat, your fishing guide drives the panga back to the “Mother Ship” (Tony Reyes). Upon arrival, your fishing gear, empty beer bottles, and, last but not least, your catch are hauled off the panga and onto the deck. Seagulls and your fellow fishermen watch from above, eager to see your haul of fish. The birds are hungrily awaiting their snack of fresh fish guts, but the fishermen are hungry for knowledge, they want to see what’s been caught and, more importantly, how big.
One reason for their curiosity is the jackpot. Each fisherman puts in $10 and every day the angler with the biggest fish of the day gets a share of that money, the jackpot. It ends up being a fun way to compete and build camaraderie on the boat. Even without the jackpot as an incentive, I suspect that most fishermen would stand and watch because it is fascinating. At times, piles of fish cover the deck, the bigger ones are weighed for bragging rights, while the rest are immediately gutted, tagged, and thrown in the icy hull. On this trip, most anglers caught yellowtail and cabrilla, but some brought in White Sea Bass, Black Sea Bass, Pargos, and a few other types of fish.
On our trip, one of the anglers brought in a Giant Black Sea Bass. The fish lived up to its’ name, maxing out the scale at 200 pounds when it wasn’t even halfway off the ground! How could anyone catch such a beast, let alone haul it into a small 22’ panga? As luck would have it, the angler who caught the Giant Black Sea Bass, Cody, was fishing for pinto bass, a smaller tasty 5-pound fish. Cody caught a pinto bass, started reeling it in, and the Giant Black Sea Bass saw the tasty morsel and swallowed it whole, along with Cody’s hooks. A fight ensued as the Black Sea Bass attempted to get away, dragging Cody and the panga with it. All four men on the panga had to help to pull in this monstrous fish. Once it was brought in, they hung the fish in the middle of the stern deck so everyone could see and appreciate it’s gargantuan size. It looked like something out of a history book. After all of that, Cody had to eat the fish’s heart?! An old fishing joke, but he took it to heart.
Each day aboard Tony Reyes, you catch more fish, have a slightly larger puff underneath the eyes, and feel an appreciation for the teeming sea life of the Sea of Cortez. Almost every day, the Tony Reyes anchors in a new bay around the Midriff Islands. A new spot to explore by trolling, casting lures, and throwing bait into blue-green waters. At some places, you get lucky and your shoulders and hands begin to ache from reeling in so many fish. So you take a break with a refreshing Pacifico and let the other two fishermen take a turn. Other times, the fish are uninterested in anything you cast, but the kelp is plentiful!
In certain bays, you are able to fish for bait, which usually makes the subsequent days fishing much better. Baitfish, like sardines and mackerel, tend to be more active at night, and sometimes the later the better. One night, we were woken up at around 11 to make bait. Sluggish and irritable, we dragged ourselves to the stern deck, tied the bait hooks on our poles and started catching. Luckily the fish were biting and the time went by quickly. Still, it made waking up the next morning at around 5 am particularly difficult.
Not only are the fish plentiful, but there are many other creatures living in these fertile waters. One morning, finback whales spouted along the horizon as we dropped our line in the water. A few of the afternoons, we spotted sea turtles peeking at us as they took a breath of salty air. We also saw dolphins riding the boats’ wake and bat rays spinning and belly flopping out from the blue depths. There is so much life thriving in these waters and we only catch a moment of it.
The week flies by with hearty food, lots of Pacifico and Corona(which you will be sick of by the end of the trip ;), and many laughs. Typically, by the end of the trip, you have caught more fish than can fit in your cooler. It all comes to an end too quickly. As the Tony Reyes pulls into the harbor and docks at the concrete pier, chaos ensues.
All the fish caught that week, upwards of 500 fish, must be cleaned and filleted by the deckhands and bagged by your fish guide. This takes place over the next 4-5 hours after docking. Deckhands and guides are helped by their sons and other local boys, who jump into the icy hull of Tony Reyes and haul up 30-pound yellow tails onto the deck. Once out of the hull, fish are thrown across the deck to the deckhands, hauled onto plastic tables, quickly filleted and put in the appropriate bucket for that ponga. This spectacle is watched by anxious anglers and half the town, some from the top decks of the boat and others from portable chairs set up on the crumbling dock. Sometimes people from the town come onto the boat with a bag and take what looks to be scraps and belly meat from the deckhands and leave on their merry way. By the end of the cleaning, anglers are anxious to get their overladen coolers into their cars and get on their way back home or to a local hotel.
After catching some sun and fish down in the Sea of Cortez, your cooler and outlook on life are full. All the anxiety and chaos of the fish cleaning forgotten as you sink your teeth into your Grade A Sushi.